Early American Bibles

Bible. Cambridge, Mass: Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663

Known as the Massachusetts Bible or Eliot’s Indian Bible, this is the earliest translation of the complete Bible in any of the native languages of America and the first Bible printed in the New World. It was the work of John Eliot (1604-1690), a Puritan minister and early colonist sometimes called the “Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot came to America in 1631 and devoted the remaining years of his long life to evangelizing the Native Americans. The Massachusetts Indians he converted lived around Boston Bay and spoke an Algonquin language. The tribe may have had as many as 21,000 members in the early 1600s, but had been swept by disease and reduced to about half that size by the time of Eliot’s arrival. Their language became extinct in the 1850s.

Eliot’s translation of the Bible was the first text written in the language of the Massachusetts Indians. The New Testament was printed in 1661 in an estimated 1,500 copies. About 1,000 of these were later bound with the Old Testament, which was printed in 1663. Only about 60 of them are still in existence. The printing of Eliot’s Bible was made possible through financial and technical assistance provided by the “Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians of New England,” the first missionary society ever established inEngland. The Bible described here is one of the 20 presentation copies sent by Eliot to his supporters in the old country. A second edition, including a revised translation made by Eliot with the assistance of the Rev. John Cotton, was published in 1685.

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